Monday, August 29, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #31: THE THIN RED LINE
I’ve been thinking for weeks about what I want to say about THE THIN RED LINE. Not just thinking, but taking copious notes… Enough notes for a very substantial essay that I don’t really have the inclination to write. Here’s the thing: THE THIN RED LINE is not just one of my favorite films. It is also, in my opinion, a perfect film – a film that demonstrates what the medium is truly capable of. That makes it a very intimidating subject for a casual blog.
I saw THE THIN RED LINE for the first time without really knowing what I was getting into. I knew of Terrence Malick, the director of BADLANDS and THE DAY OF HEAVEN who famously fled the moviemaking industry because he couldn’t muster the resources to translate the visions from his head to the movie screen in the exact way he intended. THE THIN RED LINE ended his self-imposed exile and, although he has already made two subsequent films, I can’t imagine that he’ll ever top this one.
Let’s start with the clichés: THE THIN RED LINE is NOT just a war movie. I read a review once that said “This is a war film the way that THE ILIAD is a war poem.” That seems like a fair assessment. The first time I had to describe the film to someone who hadn’t seen it, I settled on calling it an “existential tone poem.” That still doesn’t quite do it justice. Invoking the word “existentialism” makes most people think “bleak and pretentious.” (Of course, most people have a very limited knowledge of the great existentialist philosophers.)
As it happened, I was taking a college course on existentialism when THE THIN RED LINE was released. The course was my introduction to Martin Heidegger, Terrence Malick's favorite philosopher. A number of critics have written that Malick based THE THIN RED LINE on Heidegger’s work (especially “Being and Time”), but I have to admit that I did not consciously find any parallels between the two works – in spite of the fact that I was actively studying Heidegger.
I think that's partly a testament to Malick's skill as a filmmaker. THE THIN RED LINE is not a philosophical treatise translated to film. It is an immersive experience that washes over the viewer, fully engaging the senses and emotions and leaving one with a FEELING of truth instead of an IDEA of truth. Malick’s film expresses a complicated philosophy about being and time, but that philosophy is not presented in an intellectual way. The storytelling is not dialectical; it’s meditative. It’s not methodical; it’s impressionistic. The philosophy of THE THIN RED LINE is simply this: The whole is more than the sum of the parts.
I say this is a perfect film because it uses every aspect of the mixed media to transplant us in another world, to give us the Now-experience of the characters by making us feel like one of them. The filmmaker allows us to see through their eyes and forces us to experience life from multiple perspectives, complete with contradictions and obfuscations and a kind of faith that transcends all. There are no easy answers… and yet, to a certain degree, Malick helps us to turn questions into answers.
There are dozens of captivating characters in the film, played by some of the best actors alive today… An entire book could (and should) be written about the words and deeds of all these characters. For the sake of getting this blog written, I’m going to confine myself to the three characters who affected me the most: Witt, Welsh and Bell.
James Jones’ source novel THE THIN RED LINE focuses on three new recruits (Fife, Doll and Bell), but Malick’s film hones in even more on the character of Witt. According to interviews on the Criterion DVD release, this character (played by Jim Caviezel) became the focus of the film only during production. Malick was so impressed with the footage of Witt among the Melanesians that he decided to make this sequence the emotional core of the finished film, and Witt consequently became the hero. In post-production, Malick added a scene in which Witt remembers a pivotal moment from his childhood, and (in voiceover) contemplates the major issue that defines him as a human being. This seems to be Malick's way of grasping for the meaning of the film:
“I remember my mother when she was dying. She was all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She shook her head, no. [But] I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn’t find nothing beautiful or uplifting about her going back to God. I heard people talking about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it’d be when I died, knowing that this breath was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did – with the same calm. Cos that’s where it’s hidden, the immortality I hadn’t seen.”
There’s another brief flashback that stayed with me, where Witt as a young boy is baling hay with an older man (presumably his father). There’s no context – it’s just a fragment of a memory – and yet it lodged in my own memory. In my mind, this is the soldier at war yearning for the innocence of childhood, when life was simple and beautiful. Witt works hard, in spite of his circumstances, to recognize the same beauty as an adult. That’s how he survives the trials of war.
At the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum is Sgt. Welsh, played by Sean Penn. Welsh is stoic at best and nihilistic at worst. Early in the film, he advises Witt to stop dreaming about “the beautiful light” and protect himself from the undeniable ugliness of life: “We’re living in a world that’s blowing itself to hell as fast as everybody can arrange it. In a situation like that, all a man can do is shut his eyes and let nothing touch him.”
Welsh embodies author James Jones’ central message - that war destroys the best men it employs, robbing them of their souls. Welsh still has some shred of his humanity (he displays mercy, at least, when one of his brothers is dying in agony on the battlefield), but he says he’d rather be completely numb. He’d rather not see fleeting glimpses of beauty, because he can't cope with its absence. Unlike Witt, he hasn't learned to embrace the Now-moment; he is always anticipating when it will be taken away. When Witt asks him if he ever gets lonely, Welsh says only around people.
For my money, the most poignant scene featuring Penn’s character comes when sarcastically addresses his dead friend Witt: “Where’s your spark now?” This scene always gets me because Malick answers the question in a very subtle way – with a flicker of natural light on the side of the actor’s face. Welsh doesn’t notice it, but the filmmaker obviously did, and in that fleeting moment he reinforces his own affinity for Witt's transcendentalism.
The middle ground between these two philosophical perspectives belongs to Private Bell, played by Ben Chaplin. Throughout his tour of duty, Bell is constantly dreaming of the wife he left behind. She is the embodiment of his connection to the world. More to the point: She is the ONLY embodiment of his connection to the world, or so it seems. She makes him feel alive, and she also makes him unafraid to die. When his wife betrays him, Bell is lost. He doesn’t have Witt’s sense of a larger connection to nature and he doesn’t have Welsh’s protection against the cruelties of life.
In the theatrical cut, Bell simply drifts away after reading his wife’s goodbye letter. The Criterion DVD features a deleted scene in which Bell meets with his commanding officer (played by George Clooney). It’s clear, from this scene, that Bell has not completely turned away from his belief in love. He tells Clooney that he still wants his wife to receive military benefits if he is killed in battle. He is obviously still wounded by what’s happened, but it has not made him bitter or callous. Clooney, for his part, seems genuinely moved. “Why do we do this to ourselves?” he asks, rhetorically.
That’s another way of asking the looming question at the heart of Malick's film – a question posed by a faceless character in the very first scene: “What is this war at the heart of nature?” One by one, the individuals who have joined the brotherhood of war answer in their own ways, based on their own beliefs and experiences. Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) sums up Malick's answer when he says goodbye to the men who served with him: “You live inside me now. I’ll carry you wherever I go.” The intentionally faceless narrator offers the same answer: “Maybe all men got one big soul that everybody’s a part of. All faces of the same man.”
For Malick, it seems, life is about the search for connection, to each other and to the natural world. The fear of death forces us to search, and that makes death a meaningful part of life. Without death, we take life for granted. Without war, we take peace for granted. Without darkness, we take light for granted. “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there's nothing but unanswered pain, that death's got the final word. It's laughing at him. Another man sees that same bird [and] feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.” In the Now-moment, all things shine.
There is a state of mind, known to religious men, but to no others, in which the will to assert ourselves and hold our own has been displaced by a willingness to close our mouths and be as nothing in the floods and waterspouts of God. In this state of mind, what we most dreaded has become the habitation of our safety, and the hour of our moral death has turned into our spiritual birthday. The time for tension in our soul is over, and that of happy relaxation, of calm deep breathing, of an eternal present, with no discordant future to be anxious about, has arrived. Fear is not held in abeyance as it is by mere morality, it is positively expunged and washed away.
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience